Shaping the Past
Turning One's Attention to Knowledge
Each One Teach One (EOTO), a library and community centre in Berlin’s African Quarter, is a space that gives people of African descent the opportunity to transform their past into ideas for the future. Author and curator Michael Götting explains the importance and the history of this special place.
Our visions are bigger than we are as individuals
Visiting the past, one of the places where space conquers time. It could be the Weisse Rose in Berlin-Schöneberg, the Workshop of Cultures in Berlin-Neukölln, or a cultural centre in any German city with a population upwards of 100,000.
Vera Heyer is a petite Black woman in her mid-40s with freckles whose breathing is already laboured by her illness. She is standing behind a sales table with books. I’m standing on the other side, looking up from the book covers when she speaks to me. My gaze must have been saturated with what I had just seen: Roots, Invisible Man, The Souls of Black Folk. “You are interested in books!?,” she asks. I reply, “Yes!”
That was in the early 1990s. It was the proverbial stone thrown into the water, creating waves that slowly spread. Eleonore Wiedenroth-Coulibaly, Katharina Oguntoye, Nouria Asfaha, Ricky Reiser, and May Ayim were among the Black women who had just discovered the term "Afro-Deutsch” (“Afro-German”) for themselves. They pushed the books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Mariama Ba, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Angela Davis over to me and said, „You got to read these!”.
Shaping the past also means to have knowledge readyVera Heyer had turned her small apartment in Mainz-Bretzenheim into a library to which she invited the bibliophiles of the Black community to read, to exchange knowledge about Black people, or to just sit and let one’s eyes wander over the book titles on the spines. One day she said to me, “I want this to become a library that is accessible to everyone”. I had to think of that moment when I first stepped into Each One Teach One (EOTO) e.V. back in 2016. It was still very similar to Vera Heyer’s apartment: two small rooms, bookshelves from the floor to just below the low ceilings, replete with the knowledge of Africa and the African diaspora. Almost twenty years after Vera’s death in the mid-1990s, her vision had manifested itself. In 2014, EOTO opened its library with her books. This is the present.
During a time when slavery in the United States was still in full swing. Maria W. Stewart, one of the early African-American feminists whose speeches and texts have been handed down, declared, “Turn your attention to knowledge and improvement; for knowledge is power”.
I learn about Maria W. Stewart from a book that was published around the same time when I first met Vera Heyer at one of her book tables: Black Feminist Thought. Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins, published in 1990. I discover the book in the EOTO Library that has meanwhile grown into a collection of more than 8,000 books and documents, donated by the same Black women who had recommended these books to me many years before.
Shaping the past also means to have knowledge ready so that you can bring it into the present and make it available for the future. The living rooms where the knowledge about people of African descent had been collected in two or three consecutive rows on bookshelves has become a room, a library that empowers time by connecting the past with the present.
The work of Each One Teach One (EOTO) goes far beyond providing knowledge through books and documents. EOTO creates a space where Black people can come together and exchange ideas, where young people of African descent can relive their history and discover it in their own personal way. It also creates safe spaces where self-determination becomes possible, where you get to know yourself and your own position within social power structures, defining your own past, present and future, and developing strategies for change together—following Maria W. Stewart’s call to “Turn your attention to knowledge and improvement!”.
Since its foundation in 2012, EOTO has quickly become a professional organisation for education advocating for Black people, promoting literature and Afro-diasporic thinking traditions, documenting, analysing, and fighting discrimination, and collecting information about the living situation of Black people.
Knowledge that spreadsShaping the past also means facing it again and again, examining it based on the requirements of the present and with the eye on a shared vision of the future, changing course if necessary.
Going back 20 years and then returning to the present day, there’s the Equality Directives of the European Union from 2000 and its implementation by the Federal Republic of Germany starting in 2006, the World Conference against Racism in Durban 2001 and its follow-up conference in Geneva eight years later. The German Federal Government’s National Action Plan against Racism from 2017 and the current International Decade for People of African Origin (2015-2024) have shaped our vision of a common future to a considerable degree.
There is the image of waves undulating from a stone being thrown into the water, like the way ideas and ideologies spread their knowledge. There is the library that empowers time, EOTO’s rooms in the heart of Berlin’s African Quarter. In the 1930s, the African Quarter was a place where the National Socialists wanted to revive Germany as a colonial power (and with it the ideology of the predominance of white people). The street names in this neighborhood, which have remained, reflect colonial world views. But only until activists point out the meaning of street names and create awareness for their history, and possibly succeed in having the streets renamed. What would be next? Maybe street names that mark the presence of Black history in Berlin, in all of Germany, and tell the story of colonial history from the perspective of Black people. What will remain? The knowledge that triggered change in a place manifesting knowledge about the past and its conscious transformation. EOTO will also remain as a space, in the heart of the African Quarter where Black, African and people from the African diaspora experience knowledge, produce knowledge, and develop and implement strategies together. It is a place that empowers people and time. Sometimes shaping the past means nothing more than the present correcting the past, another stone that is thrown into the water and around which the waves undulate like knowledge that spreads.
“You are interested in books !?”